HAS the Second Cold War begun?
The icy courtesies exchanged by the American and Chinese delegates at last month’s Shangri-la Dialogues on the South China Sea may signal its formal beginning.
But, in my view, the dragon’s teeth were planted when, at the turn of the 1980s, China’s economy—stirred by Deng Xiaoping’s market opening—began growing faster than the world had thought possible.
China’s rapid rise—compounding the implosion of the Soviet Union—has destabilized East Asia profoundly. And until the region’s powers arrive at a new balance, they must all live with fearful anxiety.
China’s startling rise
After surpassing Germany as the largest exporter in mid-2009, China overtook Japan to become the second-largest economy in 2010. Now only the Americans are ahead in GDP terms, and even they expect China to be a first-rank power by 2025.
Already China is contesting American influence not only in East and South Asia but also in the Arab countries, in Africa and even in the traditional US preserve, Latin America.
Everywhere China is seeking markets and raw material sources, and expending aid money lavishly to advance its political friendships.
To counter Washington’s “pivot to Asia,” Beijing has devised a “March West” strategy to fill the vacuum Washington leaves behind as it disengages from West and Central Asia.
So that, ultimately, China’s challenge to to the US is not just about South China Sea reefs and shoals—some of which disappear at high tide. China’s challenge is to the United States as global “Number One.”
An Asian Monroe Doctrine?
Thata modernizing China should develop global ambitions is not surprising, since China is not just another nation-state. China’s also the oldest continuous civilization.
And China, after what it regards as “150 years of humiliation at the hands of the great powers,” is acutely aware of its growing economic weight and international stature.
In some ways, China is treading America’s own path to first-rank power. In 1823 President James Monroe had declared the United States would regard as a security threat any expansionist activity anywhere in the two Americas by an outside power.
Now Washington wants to be assured China won’t proclaim its own “Monroe Doctrine.”
China’s growth model
Already Beijing is starting to claim that, for the new countries, China’s development model is superior to America’s “winner-takes-all” capitalism. And last week’s defeat—by his fellow Democrats—of President Obama’s “Trans-Pacific Partnership” in the US Congress seems to confirm China’s claim.
So far, state direction and control don’t seem to have stifled Chinese creativity. In October 2010, China built the world’s fastest supercomputer, surpassing the most advanced US model; and it is racing ahead of everyone else in pioneering clean energy.
To keep up the economy’s vigor as it matures, Beijing is investing in high-speed trains, roads and ports to link its booming coasts with its stagnant interior provinces.
The Communist Party plans to move 250 million rural people to big cities over the next 12-15 years. If this mass migration succeeds, it should keep China’s GDP growth close to its Deng-era levels, broaden Beijing’s tax base, and indulge even more military spending.
Meanwhile China leads the five BRICS powers in organizing a $100- billion infrastructure bank and emergency reserve fund to rival the western-oriented World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
In 2009, Beijing’s three policy banks lent more money and made more overseas investments in larger quantities than the equivalent departments of the WB-IMF duo.
Xi Jinping takes command
President Xi Jinping has taken command of China’s politics just as decisively as he has its economy. Already he seems to have dismantled the collective leadership promoted by Deng Xiaoping, and cut down the influence of interest blocs in the Communist Party leadership.
President Xi’s foreign policy seems driven by his vision of an East Asian security order with China restored at its center.
In his remarkable “conversations” with US President Obama, Xi Jinping speaks plainly of resurgent China’s expectations from the new relationship the two great powers are seeking to craft.
President Xi speaks of “strategic reassurance,” of “mutual respect” for “core interests,” of “agreed-on spheres of influence”—phrases that resonate through the history of China’s protracted struggle for wealth and power.
In sum, Beijing now seems to expect a kind of Sino-American condominium to evolve in the China Sea and on the first island chain in the West Pacific that includes Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines.
US ‘give’ unavoidable?
Over the mid-term future, some US “give” does seem unavoidable in its increasingly vulnerable forward positions in Korea, Japan, Okinawa and Taiwan. A 2009 study by the American think tank RAND concluded the US would be unable to defend Taiwan by 2020.
Since 2010, Washington has in fact been reducing its troop deployments in Northeast Asia, while also fortifying its island of Guam in the Marianas group. A US possession since 1898, Guam on the East Philippine Sea is less than two days’ sailing from Manila Bay for a carrier fleet.
Meanwhile Washington’s also enlarging its Southeast Asian alliances. Just now it’s seeking to lift the Congress embargo on the sale of “defensive arms” to its former enemy, Vietnam.
American diplomats proclaim their readiness to work with rising powers, while vowing (in the words of Defense Secretary Ashton B. Cooper) to “remain the principal security power in the Asia Pacific for decades to come.”
Asean without one voice
The Asia Pacific’s period of multipolar balance has proved short-lived. China’s assertiveness on the South China Sea is driving the smaller states into the arms of its American rival.
Canberra has given up any thought of “armed neutrality,” and Jakarta has begun to speak in support of its Asean allies. Meanwhile Tokyo’s conservative leadership is using the China Sea tensions to broaden the limits of Japan’s 1949 “no-war” constitution.
But on the South China Sea issue Asean still seems unable to speak to China with one voice.
Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei are all contesting China’s claims. But on peninsular Southeast Asia both Cambodia and Laos are more wary of Vietnamese than of Chinese ambitions. Meanwhile Thailand has prickly relations with both Cambodia and Vietnam, as well as with Myanmar.
Search for Pacific peace
We must expect the China Sea tensions to continue, since their root cause is really China’s perceived need to break out from under the strategic dominance of the Western allies.
Viewed from Beijing, US bases and political alliances—from the Korean Peninsula, the Kuriles, Japan, Okinawa and the Ryukyus, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and Singapore, down to Australia—do form what the American journalist Robert Kaplan calls a “Great Wall in reverse”—blocking China’s access to the West Pacific—the world ocean—and great-power rank.
The protracted contest over the China Sea is just beginning—and Beijing is likely to hold the initiative. It can turn tensions on and off over disputed islets, high-profile exploration projects, and even the transit of military vehicles, particularly through the narrow Taiwan Straits and its broad air space.
Things could get worse before they get any better—conflict by miscalculation being only one of them.